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February 7, 2022

In Plautus’s Mercator, the senex Demipho, the archetypal lecherous old man, attempts to justify to his son his purported decision not to purchase the puella Pasicompsa as a maid for their household. While the audience understands Demipho’s dissimulation — he will, as we know, purchase the girl to satiate his lascivious desires — the old man must trot out a believable excuse to the lovelorn adulescens, whose own parallel obsession with Pasicompsa motivates the plot of the play. Rather than appeal to expediency or even to economics, Demipho argues that the presence of the girl in their household would bring shame to the family and harm their reputation:

Because there would be a scandal if a woman of her appearance were to follow the mother of a household; were she to walk through the streets, everybody would stare at her, ogle her, nod to her, wink at her, whistle at her, pinch her, call after her, and be a nuisance. People would serenade mockingly at our door. With their pieces of charcoal the door would be filled with little ditties. And, given what crooked gossipers people are nowadays, they would disapprove of my wife and myself on the grounds that we were keeping a brothel. What on earth is that necessary for?

Demipho’s pleas are ultimately successful. Why suffer vandalism, songs of mockery, harassment in the streets, and a damaged reputation for such an ephemeral desire? In the moment, his son drops the issue of Pasicompsa, though in typical Plautine fashion it will return to the stage for a humorous encore.

This passage was one of the first that piqued my interest during the nascent research stages of what would ultimately become my dissertation project at the University of Pennsylvania, “Vicinitas in Urbe: Neighborliness and Urban Community in Mid-Republican Rome,” directed by Cam Grey. In particular, I was intrigued by the possibility of reconstructing the social world within which Demipho’s protestations could be conceived of as being not only realistic, but as being a primary motivator of personal and familial behavior. It was clear to me that it was not the politics of the forum nor the intimacies of the domus that animated Demipho’s speech and the audience’s understanding of it, but rather the realities of living in an urban community, a vicus (neighborhood), in which daily life was lived in constant interaction with, under the perpetual gaze of, and at the mercy of one’s neighbors.

My dissertation therefore takes as its subject the reconstruction of the Roman neighborhood and neighborhood life during the Republic (ca. 298–81 BCE), from the institution of the vicus itself and the stories that those living in Rome told about their neighborhoods to the social norms established by the everyday practices of those dwelling within them. In the first part of the project, I explore the “bounds” of the neighborhood itself, arguing that the vici of Rome were not constituted as formal administrative divisions until the middle of the first century BCE, as a part of the reorganization of the res publica under Caesar. Rather, I suggest that the space of any given neighborhood, while recognized as discrete (figure 1), was nevertheless dynamic, constituted by the movements and interactions of those living within it. Drawing upon the work of historians and folklorists of other societies, I also argue that a primary means by which Romans defined the spaces of their neighborhoods were through the stories they told about them, often “re-presented” through place-based religious ritual, as we can surmise took place at the tigillum sororium (“The Sister’s Beam”) on the Velian hill.

A beige tablet bearing a Latin inscription hangs on the wall of a museum. It is broken and has sections missing.
Figure 1: Inscription of maintenance contract mentioning a neighborhood (veicus), 107–78 BCE. CIL VI 37043.

It is readily apparent that such memories were integral to the formation of local identities and solidarities. But I also suggest that the very fact of their preservation, often through multiple, contradictory retellings, speaks to the process of negotiation between the collective memory of the local and the “Roman.”

The case of the Tigillum Sororium, as reported by Livy and Dionysius, is again illustrative. Where Livy explains the monument and its associated rites as being tied inextricably to the local gens Horatia, whose members were responsible for building the monuments and undertaking the annual rites, Dionysius argues that it was the pontifices who oversaw the construction of the tigillum, its altar, and the execution of its associated rituals. Rather than attempting to explain away these divergent views of the monument offered by the two Roman historians, I suggest instead that they are the result of differing perspectives—one overwhelmingly “local,” the other overtly “Roman.” Similar negotiations between the local and the Roman can be adduced in other parts of the city as well, most notably in the vicus Tuscus, where the neighborhood’s Etruscan past was consistently recalled in connection with Roman territorial expansion.

In the second part of the dissertation, I turn to understanding what “neighborliness” (vicinitas) entailed — including its associated practices, ideals, and expectations. In doing so, I engage with the work of historians and sociologists who have studied other quickly urbanizing societies, both historical and modern, and the methodologies with which they analyze those societies. Part of my goal in beginning with such a broad range of comparative examples is to destabilize what has become “familiar” about Roman communities and to interrogate and reformulate the analytical categories that I apply to the ancient evidence.

Beyond the epigraphical and archaeological data for the vicus as an institution, the vast majority of my source material for this part of the dissertation was drawn from Roman comedy and the fragmentary remains of Roman oratory. As public-facing genres, these sources offer an important window into the discourses of community and social norms among the urban population in Rome. Complicating this picture of the ideals of neighborhood life, of course, is its particular refraction through the prism of Roman comedy, which purports to display Greek lives, cities, and customs to its Roman audience. Eduard Fraenkel’s seminal, if pessimistic, view — “In the colorfully eclectic Plautine world it is rarely possible to decide solely on the basis of the content what is originally Hellenic and what is Italic in the areas of manners and private law, of warfare and trade, indeed in almost all of man's institutions” — seems to me too limiting. What is clear from an examination of the literary evidence from this period is that it was not only “Greek” actors on the Roman stage engaging in discourses of neighborliness, but politicians, too, who would use the same language and ideals of community in addressing their urban audience.

It should come as no surprise that what was represented on-stage resonated with the Roman audience. After all, we do not hesitate to read Shakespeare’s Italian or Roman plays as reflections of Elizabethan era sentiment, popular or otherwise. Nor would we think that the moral crux of Sophocles’ Antigone pertains only to legendary Thebes and not the Athenian audience watching the play. The “stuff” of Roman comedy may have been removed, both temporally and geographically, from its audience, but this distance only permitted an even greater freedom in addressing the social and cultural issues relevant to those living in Rome — including the nature of vicinitas in Urbe.

A woodcut of a black and white manuscript page with Latin text at the bottom. Above the text is an image of a woman covered in feathers with the wings and feet of a bird, thebreasts and face of a human woman, and long hair. A banner above her reads "FAMA"

Figure 2: Depiction of Fama from Vergil, Book IV, woodcut by Sebastian Brant, 1502.

One example to demonstrate my method: the importance of reputation and gossip (fama) in neighborhood life in Rome was paramount, given the lack of access to information more generally. In many of our elite sources, fama is a dreaded concept, to be classified alongside other fictitious speech such as fabulae, as Varro attempts in de Lingua Latina. Consider, too, Vergil’s famous personification of the monstrous Fama in book four of the Aeneid, in which the entire concept of fama is depicted as a veritable nightmare (figure 2). The many eyes, ears, and mouths of Fama, while painting a positively grotesque picture for the reader, recall the very function of reputation and gossip within a community as being distributed among each of its members, whose individual pairs of eyes and ears and singular voice aggregate to form a powerful normative force. Even Vergil, so opposed to the concept, nevertheless admits this power, as his monster, “both holds fast to lies and fictions and heralds the truth” (tam ficti pravique tenax, quam nuntia veri, Aeneid 4.188).

Such equivocation in fact reveals the essential role of fama in regulating neighborhood life. In our opening example, it is less the reality of the senex Demipho’s situation than how it would be received by his neighborhood community, that drives him to complain that local gossipers would call his home a brothel. One’s fama, in fact, was considered alongside other virtues of the “good man” (bonus vir) as an integral part of their person, prompting one Plautine character in Mostellaria, commenting on his unbecoming behavior, to claim that his “property (res), trustworthiness (fides), reputation (fama), courage (virtus) and honor (decus)” had all abandoned him (144–145). Fama was also a favorite theme of Roman mime, in which the phrase “a good reputation is like a second inheritance” occurs frequently.

Besides asserting a normative force on those living within a community, fama, as “the things being said” about a particular individual or group, was also an important source of information in an information-scarce world. When major decisions needed to be made — from pursuing a business relationship to choosing a marriage partner — reputation could serve to fill in the uncertainties of personal knowledge.

This acknowledgement of the distributed nature of fama and its importance to the functioning of the community also has implications for the types of claims that the neighborhood community could and did make over the individual living within it. The reality of local observation, gossip, and reputation located a significant amount of power within the communal group.

Several sententiae of Publilius Syrus, a first-century-BCE author of mime, make similar claims — “The malice of an individual quickly becomes the curse of everyone” or “The wickedness of a few is the downfall of the many,” understood as proverbial statements, were powerful rhetorical claims that could be used to assert group authority over the individual. This assertion of communal authority over the individual is especially fascinating in the context of marriages. Not only could the neighborhood, through fama — produced by the neighborhood community — inflect partner-choices indirectly, but it also appears to have played an integral role in the traditional three-as marriage ritual reported by Varro in de Vita Populi Romani. In that ceremony, the bride makes three separate deposits of a coin (as): the first is directly to the groom; the second to the household gods (lares familiares) of the groom’s home; and the third to the neighborhood gods (lares compitales) at the neighborhood shrine (figure 3). This final deposit, Varro writes, must “resound” (resonare), presumably to make public and known the bride’s entrance into both a new household and a new neighborhood community.

A black and white drawing of a wall painting of people walking. Beneath the painting is a column and some broken sidewalk stones.
Figure 3: Drawing of an altar of the Lares Compitales, Pompeii.

One of the primary goals of my dissertation has been to understand the communal norms and practices underpinning the realities of everyday life in the city of Rome. As demonstrated by the example of fama mentioned above, my conclusions offer new ways to interpret the political events that so often constitute our histories of the Republic, from the spread of information in the Bacchanalian conspiracy to the use (and abuse) of fama by Tiberius Gracchus and his enemies. Such conclusions are an excellent reminder that even the seemingly mundane can have immense impact on the course and shape of history. The line connecting the rumor animating something like the Bacchanalian affair and the communal repercussions feared by Demipho could, after all, be a rather short one: best to behave appropriately and simply avoid the chatter, the mockery, and the libel. As Demipho asks, “What on earth is that necessary for?”

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Jordan joined Carleton College as Visiting Assistant Professor of Classics in Fall 2021, shortly after earning his Ph.D. in Ancient History at the University of Pennsylvania (Spring 2021). Jordan's first book project, Neighborliness and Urban Community in Republican Rome, builds upon his dissertation research in seeking to illuminate the everyday lives of Rome's urban inhabitants and their small communities during a time of rapid urbanization and demographic change. Aside from his work on the sociology of small urban communities in Republican Rome, Jordan maintains active research interests in memory studies, labor history, Roman religion and ritual, and Greek and Latin historiography.